Protecting the United States’ space assets has become essential to ensuring the safety and security of the nation and its allies. At the heart of this mission is space situational awareness. With the increasing amount of debris in space, the proliferation of space capabilities among governments and commercial entities, and the shrinking size of space vehicles, the fight is on to cost effectively advance our nation’s aging space situational awareness ground infrastructure.     

Space situational awareness is the foundation for our mission success,” then Lieutenant General John W. “Jay” Raymond told attendees at the 2014 Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies’ seminar on The Value of Space to the Warfighter Command and Control and Space Situational Awareness.

At the time, Raymond, now Commander of Air Force Space Command, was 64 days into his assignment as Commander of the 14th Air Force and the Joint Functional Component Command for Space. Even in that short period of time, his command had, he reported, generated some eye-opening statistics, including the detection, threat determination, and reporting of 145 ballistic missile launches; detection and tracking of 16 space launches; processing of 25.2 million space observations; and issuance of 200,000 warning notifications of potential conjunctions in space.

“SSA [space situational awareness] is a really tough business, and it’s getting tougher each day,” said the general, citing the growing number of objects in space, the decreasing size of satellites, the rising number of spacefaring nations, and the increasing capability of individual satellites as factors contributing to the complexity of the space situational awareness mission today.

No Longer a Benign Environment

Today, NASA’s Orbital Debris Program Office reports more than 21,000 pieces of orbital debris larger than 10 cm, an estimated 500,000 space debris particles between 1 and 10 cm in diameter, and more than 100 million particles smaller than 1 cm. Combine these numbers with more than 1,000 active satellites, and space is looking more crowded every year.

“Objects in orbit travel at very high velocities relative to each other. Even the smallest object can have a catastrophic effect on an active satellite,” says Dan Jaworowski, director of L3Harris Space Superiority and Ranges programs. Jaworowski is part of the L3Harris Space and Intelligence Systems team supporting the Air Force Space Command mission. While tracking and cataloging all of those manmade objects in space have never been more important, Jaworowski has also seen an increased emphasis on identifying threats, like signal jammers and antisatellite weapons, and growing capabilities in space from U.S. adversaries.

“To quote General John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command,” Jaworowski adds, “‘we’re moving out of a mindset of operating in a permissive, benign environment to one focused on threats to our space systems.1’”

Keeping Legacy Sensors in the Fight

The Air Force has been building its space situational awareness infrastructure—a global network of ground-based sensors and dependable command and control system—since the late 1950s, when Project Space Track was started to track artificial Earth satellites and manmade debris. Today, engineers and scientists from L3Harris are working to keep critical, aging sensors like the Perimeter Acquisition Radar Attack Characterization System (PARCS) and the PAVE Phased Array Warning System (PAVE PAWS) viable and in good working order 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

“It’s a real challenge to keep all of these disparate, legacy sensors in the fight, doing the heavy lifting for SSA. Parts requiring replacement become obsolete. The needs of the warfighter change,” says Nathan Nipper, engineering manager for L3Harris Space Superiority programs. “So we look for innovative ways to make sure everything works seamlessly and to modernize in the most cost-effective way possible.”

In fact, a team of L3Harris systems engineers and scientists come together regularly to discuss user insights and share knowledge that could inspire new solutions that would serve the Air Force and its space situational awareness mission. “We have two primary areas of focus: potential new threats and how to respond to them, and emerging technologies that can address future mission needs,” Nipper says.

An incremental approach to migrating services onto updated platforms and inserting new technologies lets the L3Harris team address very specific customer needs relatively quickly. Nipper explains: “Typically, acquisitions for radar and optical systems— from RFP [request for proposal] to fielding—can take many years. But because we fully understand the legacy systems, the customer’s mission, and emerging technologies, we’re able to systematically upgrade SSA systems in significantly less time.”

Recent modernization efforts have upgraded early warning radar system hardware and software at Thule Air Base, Beale Air Force Base (AFB), and Royal Air Force Fylingdales to improve sensor coverage. Planned upgrades at Eglin AFB not only will help extend the operational life of the AN/FPS-85 phased array radar there, but also will exploit new technology. “We’re bringing new, tactically significant capability for low-Earth-orbiting and geostationary satellite missions,” says Morgan Nicholson, L3Harris’ modernization technical lead at Eglin. “We are nearly doubling the data throughput capacity and the number of targets that the radar can handle and enabling better detection of small objects, like microsats.”

Improvements are also under way for the Ground-Based Electro- Optical Deep Space Surveillance (GEODSS) system. Here, the L3Harris team is incorporating modular components that enable new technologies to be inserted without “breaking” the overall system architecture. The team is also adding the capability to expose more data collected by the sensor.  

“Previously, the GEODSS system could primarily report just the location of resident space objects or metric observations,” says Len Calabretta, strategic plans manager for L3Harris Space Situational Awareness. “Now the Air Force will be able to add services that will improve the capability of the GEODSS system to characterize these objects. It becomes a much more tactical system that can support anomaly and threat detection—one of today’s critical needs. Modularity will deliver significant life-cycle cost savings, while supporting changing mission requirements.”

Expanding Capabilities

From the Naval Support Facility Dahlgren, Virginia, Air Force Space Command’s 18th Space Control Squadron, Detachment 1, supports the nation’s Distributed Space Command and Control System - Dahlgren, known as DSC2-D. DSC2-D is the alternate command and control node for the Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC) Space Situational Awareness mission, which tasks the worldwide sensors in the Space Surveillance Network with detecting, tracking, and observing orbiting objects larger than 10 centimeters. Data from these 31 sensors is then processed, cataloged, and analyzed.

Now a new tool, the Non-Traditional Data Pre-Processor (NDPP), is expected to significantly up the game for the JSpOC and DSC2-D with a big boost in data obtained from other Department of Defense agencies, universities, foreign governments, commercial satellite flyers, and commercial ground sensors.

“NDPP will leverage billions of dollars in current U.S. government investment in other sensors and systems and billions more in foreign and commercial investment,” says Megan Monteith, who leads the L3Harris program working to deliver a successful NDPP. “Organizations like the JSpOC, the JICSpOC [Joint Interagency Combined Space Operations Center], and the 18th Space Control Squadron will be able to exploit and fuse data from literally thousands of new sources to give the space warfighter a much richer operational picture and the basis for better decision making.”

To do this, NDPP will need to reduce the amount of direct human involvement. “We are working to incorporate more automation and reduce the tasking cycle time so that useful data gets into the hands of those that need it more quickly,” adds Monteith.

Moving toward Dynamic Space Situational Awareness

For many years, the twin goals of space situational awareness have been custody and persistence— being able to find resident space objects in orbit and then keep track of them over time. Today the holy grail of space situational awareness takes this one step further: to more precisely characterize those objects—including more and smaller objects—and monitor any changes they might make.

By sustaining and incrementally modernizing legacy systems, leveraging outside resources, and getting data into the hands of the warfighter more quickly, Air Force Space Command is evolving its legacy space situational awareness infrastructure to be more responsive to the needs of today’s warfighters.

“We must know where objects are, who owns them, and what capabilities they represent,” Admiral Cecil D. Haney, U.S. Strategic Command Commander (now retired), told his audience at the 32nd Space Symposium. “We simply cannot risk denied access to a domain that is so vital to U.S. national security.”


1Gen John Hyten on “Overcoming Our Space Vulnerabilities,” 2014 Space and Missile Defense Symposium


As published in the L3Harris Space and Intelligence Systems publication, Insights for a Better World, Ensuring Superiority in Space.